Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lilacs- Extending The Season

Syringa 'tinkerbell'

We love lilacs so much that we make every attempt to extend their bloom season as long as possible.  By using a variety of cultivars that bloom successively we can extend the beauty of their flowers, and accompanying wonderful fragrance, well into the month of June.

The first lilacs to bloom for us here at Juniper Hill are the old, common "farmstead" lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) that have been here for many, many years. Lilacs in the United States date back to the 1750's and were especially popular in New England. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew lilacs in their gardens and lilac bushes can live for hundreds of years.  So, it's entirely possible that many of the old lilacs that surround the farm and the house today were planted by some of the original owners as early as the late 1700's. New Hampshire has a special historical connection with lilacs; the oldest living lilacs in the United States are believed to be at the Governor Wentworth estate in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Syringa vulgaris originated in eastern Europe.  Over the years, it was the French who were most closely associated with the growing, selection and hybridizing of this particular species of lilac and so today many people still refer to this type of lilac as a "French" lilac.

Syringa vulgaris
Here is a photo of a large clump of "ancient French" lilacs that grow right next to the barn.  Over the years, the trunks of these lilacs have grown very thick. Occasionally, the weight of heavy winter snows will snap a very tall old clump. However, Syringa vulgaris suckers so voraciously that in no time at all a new clump is formed to take the place of the old one.

Unlike Syringa vulgaris, most lilac species hail from Asia, including many of the most popular species planted today.  Following the French lilacs, the next lilacs to bloom for us here are the Syringa "bailbelle's" or Tinkerbell lilacs.  This is one of my favorite lilacs, because of both its unusual flower color (wine red to pink) and its very intense fragrance.  It's a dwarf variety (only reaching 5-6 ft. tall) that was developed at Bailey Nurseries, in Minnesota from a cross between Syringa meyeri 'palibin' and Syringa microphylla 'Superba.'  We have it planted as a small hedge that encloses the courtyard right in front of the carriage sheds.  Since this is the one entrance to the house we use most frequently, every time you walk through the opening in this hedge, the fragrance practically knocks you down!  The Tinkerbells are in full bloom right now (May 31).

Syringa 'tinkerbell' underplanted with Geranium macrorhizum 'Bevan's variety'
Syringa meyeri 'palibin'
Blooming very close on the heels of the Tinkerbell Lilacs are the Syringa meyeri 'palibins' (sometimes called Palibin dwarf Korean lilac).  These we grow as standards within a formal garden area that forms an entrance to a lower garden. The gumdrop heads are filled with fragrant lavender colored panicles.  The one real caution with Palibins grown as standards is the build up of snow on the heads which can easily split the crown.

Syringa x prestoniae 'Donald Wyman'
Blooming shortly after the Palibins are the Syringa x prestoniae 'Donald Wyman's.'  (early to mid June).  This lilac will grow to 10 feet and has intense purple buds that open to red-purple flowers. 

A very popular lilac, and one of the latest blooming for us is Syringa patula 'Miss Kim' (sometimes called Manchurian lilac). Miss Kim is considered a compact form of lilac but not a dwarf.  Miss Kim grows to 6-8 feet tall and has flowers that are extremely fragrant and mature to a very pale, almost white to ice blue, shade of lilac. We have at least a half dozen hedges of Miss Kim planted around the gardens, using it as a screen between garden areas and, as in this photo, a long hedge along the drive.  As you can see in the detail of the photo, Miss Kim's flowers are just barely beginning to open (June 2nd).  

Syringa patula 'Miss Kim'
detail of Syringa patula 'Miss Kim'
A quick word about using lilacs as hedges:  Since lilacs flower on new growth, it's important to prune them right after flowering to ensure that new shoots have plenty of time to grow and develop buds for next season.  However, if you are using your hedges "architecturally" and want a more "formal" hedge appearance, it's inevitable that you will need to do some shaping during mid-season.  We try to strike a compromise with our hedges, where we do most of the hard pruning right after flowering and then a less-intense touch up during the growing season.  And although our hedges always seem to be loaded with panicles, we probably don't get all the flowers possible using this method.  However, it does prevent the hedges from getting too rangy and lopsided looking.

Syringa reticulata
The last lilac to bloom for us, well after all the other lilacs have gone by, is the Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata). Unlike most other lilacs that grow as a shrub or bush, this lilac actually has the appearance of a tree.  Its white flowers are not as fragrant as those of the french or korean lilacs but, as seen in this photo, the flower heads are quite high, where their scent can waft through the second-floor open window of one of our guest rooms on a warm june night.  


  1. so lovely. the New England garden is in a class all by itself.. rich soil, summer heat, rains.. makes me want to sing along with Arlo Guthrie's Garden song;

    I look forward to getting home in mid to late July..I so miss it!

  2. And, New England misses you, Susie Q!

  3. I am so impressed Joe! One by this very informative post and two by the beauty of your property. Our lilacs have come and gone but now I am curious. I will have a look at my photos and see if I can figure out what we have. It will be nice to note for future gardens.

    I was just talking about the red colour of your barn ( with Lisa). I call it Nantucket red, I am sure I have asked you before. Apologies if I have, but what colour is it? The door accents it beautifully. Is it the same colour as the house? I think you have a slice of heaven in Francestown!

    Best wishes


  4. Thank you so much, Jeanne! I appreciate your kind comments! The barn is painted a Pittsburgh Paint color, Rural Red, and the door is not the same as the house but the Benjamin Moore color called Black Forest Green--Joe


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